It’s no longer all about potential with Chris Smith.
Buzzwords that apply after the UCLA junior guard’s opening week of Pac-12 Conference play include dominant, tenacious and determined.
Smith put together his best back-to-back games as a Bruin against Washington and Washington State. He had his first career double-double with 17 points and 12 rebounds against the Huskies and followed it with a career-high 22 points against the Cougars.
Along the way, Smith made 16 of 27 shots (59.3%) while directing the Bruins’ offense out of the high post when they faced a zone defense. He also proved to be nearly unstoppable while playing power forward as part of a four-guard lineup.
“Just my teammates and my coach giving me the confidence to play like I did,” Smith said Wednesday of his breakthrough. “And I don’t see that wavering, so hopefully that can continue.”
Smith said he’s learning the difference between effort and winning effort, the latter illustrated by his diving onto the court in the final seconds against Washington to secure a loose ball during the Bruins’ 66-64 victory.
“Things that don’t show up on the stat sheet,” Smith said, “that’s what wins games.”
Smith occasionally stood out in the box scores through his first two college seasons but never with any consistency. After a strong start last season in which he reached double figures in scoring in his first five games, Smith averaged 4.9 points per game and made only 15.8% of his three-pointers in Pac-12 play.
This season, he’s averaging 12.2 points while making 47.1% of his shots, 32.1% of his three-pointers and 84.6% of his free throws, all career highs. At 6 feet 9, he’s also been ideally suited to attack zone defenses out of the high post.
“If you don’t have a guy against that zone that’s in that 6-7, 6-8 range that can make that shot and is comfortable in the middle of all that traffic, you’re in trouble,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said, “and he was our best guy in there. When you get Chris touches top of the key down, where he can have one or two bounces to score, is when he’s at his best.”
Smith didn’t seem satisfied with his play when he met with reporters Wednesday, noting the Bruins had achieved only a split of their games last week after he was double-teamed in the final seconds of regulation and lost the ball during the loss to Washington State.
Smith said he needed to improve his effort on defense, which has been the biggest predictor of his team’s fortunes considering the Bruins are 8-0 when they hold opponents to 73 points or fewer.
“Offense doesn’t win games,” Smith said. “As you can see, I’ve had good games recently, but we didn’t win the last game, so obviously there was something I could have done more.”
David Singleton agrees with the assessment that he appears a step slow and a bit tentative as he continues to round into form long after suffering a broken foot in the Pac-12 tournament last season.
“I just have to keep working on it,” the sophomore guard said, “working on my shooting and my speed to get it back to where it was last year.”
Cronin said he was trying to fix a mechanical flaw in Singleton’s shot in which an elbow out of alignment has led to a lack of arc on the ball. Singleton has made 40% of his three-pointers this season, down from a team-high 46.7% as a freshman.
The dip in production, however, hasn’t impacted Singleton’s leadership style.
“He hasn’t found his groove yet,” Smith said, “but in practice he is always going hard and letting guys know if they’re messing up, letting guys know what they need to do. Everybody is holding each other accountable now, but I’d say he’s in charge.”
The Bruins earned their UCLA logos back in practice after the way they fought during their road split against the Washington schools. “If you’re ever going to have a program that has any type of fiber to be a championship program, you’ve got to compete and play with pride,” Cronin said. “So I thought we did that.” … Fewer than 1,000 tickets remain for the UCLA-USC game on Saturday night at Pauley Pavilion.